The Hillsborough County Commission voted 6-1 on Wednesday to ask the Florida Commission on Ethics to pursue legal frees from a Plant City winery owner whose ethics complaint against Commissioner Al Higginbotham was deemed to be without merit by that same commission.
Joe Keel, owner of Keel and Curley Winery, filed an ethics complaint against Higginbotham last summer, complaining that the county commissioner used the power of his office to shut down the winery’s beer tasting operation. But after the ethics commission ruled in April that Keel’s claim did not rise to a sufficient enough level, Higginbotham’s attorney, L.T. Lafferty says it’s time for Keel to pay up.
Naturally, Keel feels differently.
On Wednesday morning, he told commissioners that he felt it was civic duty as a Hillsborough resident to let the state know what was going on, insisting that he had no malicious intent in filing the charge.
Two other Eastern Hillsborough residents also came out in support of Keel. Elizabeth Belcher, the chair of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, called it a “blatant threat to ordinary citizens,” while Dover resident George Niemann said the county would be sending a “horrible message to the community” by going after Keel with “a vengeance.” He called Higginbotham “small minded and vindictive.”
But that didn’t persuade the commission, who voted 6-1 to pursue the case with the Commission on Ethics.
The lone holdout on the board was Kevin Beckner, who defended Keel.
Acknowledging that he knew little of the actual particulars in the case involving the winery owner and his colleague on the board, he said that when a citizen has the type of evidence that Keel had, they should come forward to file such a complaint. “I just don’t want to stifle a citizen’s concern for bringing forward a just complaint for the fear that the government is going to have retribution against them if they’re not successful in their case,” he said.
Beckner added that if the ethics commission rejected the county’s request to have Keel pay Lafferty’s legal fees, the county should then be duty bound to compensate Keel for any expenses incurred in defending.
But Commissioner Victor Crist came back to try to school Beckner, saying going after the legal fees of a loser in court is de rigeur in Europe and is incredibly becoming a more typical process in the U.S. “It’s not unusual in a lawsuit that the loser pays,” he said. “It’s quite common and frankly it’s a way to police frivolous lawsuits.”
“My concern isn’t Commissioner Higginbotham. My concern isn’t our legal department. My concern is the people who elected me and the taxpayer,” Crist continued. “And I need to be responsible for their money. And the responsible thing would be to recoup the expense because the plaintiff lost.”
Beckner shot back that the board was “overanalyzing” the situation, saying that he’s also a good steward of the taxpayers money. He said there was a double standard in play. “If the ethics commission finds there was no egregious action by the citizen, I’m just saying that we should own up, ‘fess up and pay the expenses associated with that proceeding. Why should citizens be penalized because they thought they had a reasonable cause to bring action because they thought the law was violated…and they were not successful. That’s inhibiting fear into citizens for creating an accountable justice for their elected officials.”
Last December, County Commissioner Ken Hagan admitted that he failed to fully report all of his stock investments on yearly financial disclosure statements for the last few years, compelling him to pay a $2,000 fine to the Ethics Commission. He said that most complaints were bogus.
“Most ethics complaints are politically motivated,” he complained, adding that “I would suggest all of them are, including this one.”
Beckner disagreed, saying that complaints about former County Administrator Pat Bean and Attorney Renee Lee that originated from citizens never reached the criminal level, but those citizens “had a duty to go forward.”
The Tampa Tribune reported that the ethics commission investigation report showed that county inspectors had received complaints from the winery’s neighbors’ through Higginbotham’s office, but had never spoken with the commissioner. One inspector told the investigator that getting complaints relayed by a commissioner’s office is not out of the ordinary.